Howard Becker – Writing for Social Scientists – Chapter 8:  Terrorized by the Literature

  • B. begins by noting that students often “choose” a method; however, they really didn’t have a real free choice of theories.  In fact, by the time the writing of the research occurs, most have already chosen what questions to investigate, how to gather their information, the technical and procedural alternatives of their work (who to interview, how to code, when to stop, etc.) (135).
  • B. notes that the “classics” are important places to jump into at the early stages of a project; however, by the time you actually start writing you should have some of your “fundamental” ideas fairly well-laid out and clear.  This is because they’ve likely influenced your work all along.
  • The “classics” serve another function in research:  they provide a coherence to the work you’re doing by engaging the scholarly consensus around any particular issue.  In other words, they situate your work in on “the shoulders of giants.”
  • Classics also serve as virtuous examples  of what good scholarship looks like.  Classics also serve as “developmental tasks for novices” because they demonstrate the complexity of any given topic of work and demonstrate what counts as “sophistication” in any field.
  • In addition to the classics, folks need to tap into the cumulative enterprises that comprise the commentary on the classics as a space to incrementally contribute to the ongoing aggregation of work that comprises any disciplinary epistemology (140).
  • B. notes that the best way to use the literature is to be something of an assembler/bricoleur.  You are piecing together the work of the classics and the commentary on the classics as a way to frame the argument and contribute a small amount to its success.
  • B. turns to Benjamin’s work as a space to find the kind of scholarly assemblage/mix that he finds valuable in the citation practice/process.
  • B. notes that literature in a discipline often has a sort of “ideological hegemony” that prevents folks from doing something new. . . it controls how we think about a topic and in our desire to undermine it we often preclude the kinds of questions and research that exist beyond the dialectic in which ideological hegemony was one side (149).
  • Use the literature. . . don’t let it use you (149).

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